Thursday, December 29, 2005

Rough Guide to the Music of China

I checked out some CDs from the local library by travel-guide publisher Rough Guide, and the one of Chinese music is a lot of fun. I don't know how representative it is, or if it is even a "guide," but there are plenty of interesting things on it.

It starts off with a classic of Chinese rock, Cui Jian's "Nothing to my Name." As is mentioned in just about every news article on Chinese pop culture, this song was somewhat of a student anthem during the Tiananmen Square incident. It's not one of Cui Jian's more musically challenging pieces (later he did more sonic experimentation, with Sonic Youth-esque guitars, traditional instruments, and drum machines), but the lyrics are interesting given the context. It's a love song. Cui sings he's asked his lover to go off and be with him many times, but she just laughs at him because he has nothing. She comes around, the song speeds up, and he starts to song "You'll come with me right now." Apparently students back in 1989 thought of it not as "nothing to my name" but "nothing to our names," and interpreted it as an expression of idealism.

The disc moves on to some Mongolian folk and a nice qin piece. Then there's some old 1930s pop, which I am a big fan of. It's not my favorite, Ge Lan, but rather Bai Hong. I discovered these old singers while in Taiwan--the CDs are so cheap I picked up a bunch. My Taiwanese friends always think I am nuts for having those, but then they listen to them and end up buying some themselves.

The disc has some other varieties of traditional music, the folk-pop song "My 1997" by Ai Jing, and a Cantonese Opera piece that is also on the In the Mood for Love soundtrack. Another standout for me is "Yellow Banana" by Hang on the Box, a female punk band from Beijing. It's a bouncy, catchy pop-punk tune with nonsense English lyrics that gets extra points from me for the line "Hey, you, cooking breakfrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst!" Like Cui Jian, the Beijing punk thing got overexposed (stories in magazines like Time saying "Hey, China's got rock&roll--they're breaking through the repression!"), but I like this tune.

There's also a minimalist electronic thing by a Japanese-Chinese guy named Kin Taii, which features an erhu and a Speak&Spell voice reading some classical-sounding phrases (from the Liezi?). It comes just a little too close to New Age for my taste, but it's an interesting idea. I wonder if it's not just dated--I'd be curious to hear newer stuff by him. According to the liner notes, he was influenced by YMO, whose songs like "Sleepwalking" and "1000 Knives" more successfully blended Kraftwerk-y technopop and Asian sensibilities.

It's not an easy task, boiling down a nation's sonic heritage to one CD's worth of music. I am not even sure that's what the goal was here, but the compilers have succeeded in putting together a highly listenable hodgepodge worth checking out.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Expat Media Sources

Unfortunately, Taipei's only free alternative weekly, POTS, has dropped its English section. If you are limited to the English media, it's really tough to figure out what's going on in Taiwan. The three English papers are extremely biased and/or incompetent, and there's a lot of pressure for English TV and radio to cater to the local English-learner rather than the expat who wants to know what's going on.

Funny how that contrasts with all the stuff in Japan--Metropolis magazine up in Tokyo, Kansai Time Out and Kansai Scene down where I was, a selection of newspapers that were at least error-free.... None of those seems to feel the need to cater to the ESL crowd, either.

I guess that's attributable to the size of the expat population in Japan, obviously, but I think there's an "English fever" in Taiwan that just doesn't exist in Japan.

Never Trust the Internet (or Manga)

I just read a profile of Roland Soong, the man behind EastSouthWestNorth, and came across a nice illustration why I think it's wise to be cautious in drawing conclusions (especially about China) from things on the net:

17. Zhao Ziyang recently died. Non-Chinese seemed to have much greater interest in this story than Chinese. Is this observation correct? Whether true or false, why?

How many Americans or Europeans know who Zhao Ziyang is? You must be joking!!! Like 0.00001%! This question must refer not to general populations, but only to those who actually speak up. I once published an academic paper on the theory of the "Spiral of Silence" of Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann about the common fallacy to take the distribution of opinions of those who speak out as the same for the general population. This is a dangerous, because it was exactly how the Nazis created the impression that they represented the majority in Germany. On the matter of Zhao Ziyang, the distribution of opinions should not be based upon only those who are willing to speak out at this time.

Inside China, I would have liked to run an anonymous public opinion survey to ascertain how people feel, but that won't happen, of course. So all is left to speculation.
According to Wikipedia, the Spiral of Silence actually "asserts that a person is less likely to voice an opinion on a topic if one feels that one is in the minority for fear of reprisal or isolation from the majority." I find Soong's take more useful--maybe I can call it "Soong's Spiral of Silence (SSS)." It's the perfect way to reassure yourself when you read newspaper accounts of some fanatical Chinese nationalist's BBS postings. "That's horrible! Oh, SSS... it's OK!" Or when you hear about some crazy Japanese manga like "Hating the Korean Wave." Never mind... SSS!

Monday, December 26, 2005

NYC Otaku

There was an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine the other day about a Japanese kid named Yuki living in New York. The kid is obsessive about some things like public transportation and museum displays--according to the article he's got a genetic disorder, but for the most part it sounded like garden-variety otakudom to me.

He writes poetry about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and memorizes train conductors' announcements. He entertains firefighters by singing to them in their firehouses, unaccompanied by music, because he likes to. His first home is an Upper East Side apartment; his second is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has spent so many afternoons inside the Met that the security guards call out his name when they see him. He tells them what subway lines to avoid because of weekend service changes, which he monitors religiously.

The article gives me the impression that Yuki and his mother are struggling. They live together with others in a 2-bedroom place. His mom does freelance web design and is writing a book. My suggestion--get this kid a blog! I am sure it would be interesting, and it could run ads. His mom could even design it!

Yuki--I'd definitely link to it!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Mattel's Maiko

When I say "maiko," you think... Barbie, right? No? Well, you should. "Maiko" is apparently a trademark of the Mattel corporation--take a look at the page for their Maiko Barbie!
(Via Japundit)

And in other geisha news, Roger Ebert calls them prostitutes in a review of, oh, some movie I am trying not to talk about:

I know, a geisha is not technically a prostitute. Here is a useful rule: Anyone who is "not technically a prostitute" is a prostitute... Is the transaction elevated if there is very little sex, a lot of cash, and the prostitute gets hardly any of either? Hard to say.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Japanese 101 Wishlist

Now that I have a little bit of knowledge of Classical Japanese and some practical experience with modern Japanese, my understanding of the language has changed quite a bit. It must be a tough job to teach Japanese to native speakers of English, and I appreciate my old Japanese 101 teacher quite a bit, but still there are some things I wish they'd have done differently. Here's my wishlist for a new Japanese 101 textbook:

1. Teach plain form first.
In Japanese 101, we were taught that, say, "to drink" was "nomimasu." It wasn't until later that we learned the so-called "dictionary forms" like "nomu." Then it got more complicated when we learned "-te" and "-ta" forms--we had to go "nomimasu"->"nomu"->"nonde." It would have been simpler to start with the plain-form verbs. I know they don't want us to be impolite, but I think it's more logical to start this way. Besides, I found that when I got to Japan I needed to understand plain form more often, and I was accustomed to stilted "-masu" stuff. I had to jump through all the hoops to conjugate verbs.

2. Mention onbin.
I know that any in-depth discussion of that would send casual learner anime-fan undergrads running for the door, but the reasoning behind the seemingly-odd conjugation should get a mention, at least to leave students knowing that there is some method to the madness (see above--where did the "mu" go in "nonde"?). We did, however, learn a convenient mnemonic for conjugation to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"--"u tsu ru-- tta, nu mu bu-- nda...."

3. Throw "anata" and "watashi" out the window.
I think many Japanese think of it as awkward "gaijin-ese" when a foreigner overuses these pronouns. Getting rid of them right at the beginning would help students to get accustomed to subjectless ("zero-pronoun") sentences and also the use of "ageru," "kureru," etc. which make the subjects and objects clear.

4. Explain auxiliary verbs.
This might send people running, too, if it's overdone, but stuff like "potential" and "causative forms" or jidoushi/tadoushi could be taught as auxiliary verbs. We were required to memorize long lists of jidoushi and their tadoushi equivalents (like "nobiru/nobasu"), and I remember thinking some seemed to fall into some sort of pattern ("-iru/-asu"). Now I know why. It would have been nice to have that long list of verbs broken down into types like that, if for nothing more than mnemonic purposes. When it becomes time for polite forms, "-masu" could be introduced in this way, too.

5. Teach radical and phonetic elements of Kanji.
I had Chinese under my belt before I started Japanese so I didn't have this problem, but I bet many people do. Japanese teachers told some pretty weird stories about how certain kanji mean what they mean (emphasizing the "pictograph" notion)--I don't know if they really believed that stuff or if they were just presenting these stories as mnemonic devices for students. But I think those mnemonics will present problems down the line as you can only memorize so much. When learning characters in the Chinese context, the radicals and phonetics are mentioned (and fairly obvious). Maybe teaching onyomi and kunyomi for characters right off the bat would help? Knowing the onyomi, the phonetics are easier to see, and therefore easier to memorize as they'd fall into place in a system.

I know it's a lot and it's complicated, but to me that's better than just having Japanese presented as a big mess to memorize. I think it would be very difficult in the beginning, but students would have a really strong foundation for further study.

What do you wish you knew then that you know now about Japanese?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dwarf Pirates

I was pretty stunned by this photo (from EastSouthWestNorth):

This giant poster is in--you guessed it--China, and if you know characters through Japanese you might not recognize the first two in this slogan ("倭寇入常,天理不容"). They are "wo1kou4," a derogatory term for Japanese. EastSouthWestNorth translates the entire thing as "To let the Japanese bandits enter the UN Security Council is not permitted by natural (heavenly) principles," but most Chinese speakers understand "wokou" to mean something more like "dwarf pirates" since the first character is the "person" radical and the character for "short."The term originally referred to pirate bands that conducted raids on the Chinese and Korean coasts beginning in the 16th century (which, by the way, consisted of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean sailors).

Call me naive, but it's pretty stunning to see something like this displayed in this fashion. Azuma was right in his comment on my post about Japanese "nationalism": In Japan, you might see such an inflammatory message on the side of a nutcase's sound truck, but never hanging from the side of a building like this. I am being persuaded--Japanese nationalism doesn't even come close to the "instrumentalized" Chinese version.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gaijin Griping

I know sometimes living abroad can be stressful, and even the biggest culture-vulture expats indulge in the occasional gripe-session, but there's no reason to write stuff like that up and print it in Newsweek! Breaking news: Expat wife gets cranky in Tokyo!

I am quite a bit taller than the woman who wrote the article, and I lived in an old-fashioned house that was built during the Meiji era. Translation: I hit my head a lot. But that's the price you pay. And maybe it was a Kyoto thing, but nobody stared at me. Even if they did, wouldn't it be natural to do a double-take when you see something you don't see every day?

This is what gets me, though--she claims she "mastered 'survival Japanese'," but:
[...] many times I spoke in what I knew to be passable Japanese to a clerk or conductor, only to be rewarded with a vacant stare and a long, drawn-out "Huhhhh?" The person to whom I was speaking couldn't believe that Japanese words were coming from a foreign face.
Uh, lady... maybe your Japanese wasn't quite as good as you thought it was? That's usually the case when people drag out that favorite gaijin gripe--"I know they actually understand me!" No, they don't. This is one thing I will say for the Taiwanese and Japanese students I have taught English to--they never displayed such an attitude. If they say "Huhhh?," don't blame them, hit the books.

Her complaint about being stared at in the "ofuro (communal bath)" (sic) reminded me of a story about a red-headed expat girl I heard in Kyoto. People were staring at her in the sento, and fed up, she wanted to tell them she was human, just like them, but she got one word just a little wrong. She shouted, "何を見てるの?私はニンジンです!!"

(Via Japundit and Mutant Frog.)

Monday, December 12, 2005

Smackdown Commentary (and its Consequences)

In reading these traditional commentaries, I keep looking for real contentiousness or partisanship bickering. I wondered if there were any Han-dynasty flame wars going on over interpreting the classics.

I found some in a book about Wang Bi's commentary on the Laozi, The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi by Rudolf Wagner. Wang Bi was a young hotshot who wrote some brilliant commentaries before dying in his early 20s. According to Wagner, Wang criticized big-name commentator Zheng Xuan in a "thinly veiled" passage of his I Ching commentary. Wagner relates a story from the Shishuo Xinyu:

When Wang Bi wrote his Commentary on the Zhouyi he made fun without qualms of [a scholar as important as] Zheng Xuan because of his Ru-theories, saying, "This old fuddyduddy is completely without brains." Thereupon he heard, in the middle of the night, suddenly steps outside the door, and a moment later something stepped forth and introduced itself: Zheng Xuan. [The ghost of Zheng] accused him: "You are so young how dare you poke holes into my writings and pick at my phrases, going so far as make fun of this old man [me, ironically Zheng Xuan calls himself laozi 老子]?" He looked very angry and left straight away. Fear and worry rose in Wang Bi's heart. After a short while he fell sick and died.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Pizza Effect

An old professor of mine used to talk about "the Pizza Effect"--Italian immigrants bring Italian cooking to the States, then pizza is invented under that influence, and the Italians in Italy accept it as their own.

I have been working on translating an article about the popularity of The Book of Changes outside of Asia. The author seems surprised that foreigners could understand something that "even Chinese don't," but then goes on to talk about all the Chinese things that she's found to have been adopted abroad--feng shui, the Chinese horoscope, Lao Tzu.... She tosses around words like "mysticism," too (which these things wouldn't be in their original context). It struck me how even the Chinese author has dropped these things into this "Western" framework. Is this the Pizza Effect?

Marxy over at Neomarxisme mentions the "self-Orientalization" that goes on when Japanese perpetuate "Fujiyama Geisha" type images themselves. That doesn't stop the Japanese from getting upset over, say Memoirs of a Geisha--Marxy concludes that "the big difference [is] that the modern Japanese users of these symbols get them 'right' while Americans are often sloppy, uninformed, and implicitly racist."

Perhaps something like The Book of Changes (or Italian cooking) belongs to world culture, but the Chinese (and Italians) may reserve the right to be the curators.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hyakunin Isshu

There are some nice pages of translations ofthe Hyakunin Isshu with grammar notes here. It was apparently made by Waseda University students and their teacher.

Monday, December 05, 2005


By the way, speaking of Murakami Haruki and films...

Anyone who is a fan of Murakami, Wong Kar-wai, and/or David Lynch should check out the Korean film Oldboy. The story reminded me a bit of Kafka by the Shore and Wind-up Bird Chronicle, while the visual style was very Wong Kar-wai style. I am a huge fan of WKW, but I have to say this one beats 2046 hands down.

But... consider yourself warned. It's pretty twisted, even more so than Kafka, and quite violent as well.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Mechakucha Geisha

I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that turns me off about this Memoirs of a Geisha film that is coming out soon. Is it the fact that it was partly filmed in my hometown in southern California? No. (Interestingly enough, the film version of The Good Earth was filmed there too way back when. It does look similar to northern China if you ignore the cactus plants.)

Some people have been talking about the fact that the Chinese actresses will have Chinese-accented rather than Japanese-accented English. That doesn't bother me either, as the fact they're speaking English at all calls for our willing suspension of belief, and I am willing to extend it that much more.

The big bone of contention for many, though, is race. Japundit got all sorts of reaction to an entry on this topic. I don't think it's exactly the equivalent of having a non-Scottish person playing Macbeth as some have said--if it's really all about acting skills then let's have Samuel L. Jackson and Robert DeNiro play the geisha! (People forget there is such a thing as culture, and though it often overlaps with race, it's not identical to it.)

It doesn't bother me that much. I think I could accept Chinese actresses as geisha but... not these ones! Maybe, maybe Gong Li as Hatsumomo, but Michelle Yeoh and especially Zhang Ziyi (excuse me, it's Ziyi Zhang now that she's gone Hollywood). Where have you seen these two before? Right, mostly action flicks where they displayed pretty one-dimensional acting skills. Zhang especially seems to specialize in tough, no-nonsense characters--not what I'd be looking for in an actress playing a geisha, revenge-seeking or not.

The motivating factor seems to be their international star power. But imagine if, in an alternate universe, China was the #1 world film-industry powerhouse and they want to make a film about the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud. "We need foreigners.... Who can we get who's got star power?" "I know, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal!"

It's funny how Hollywood forgets its own lessons. Crouching Tiger was a breakout hit despite the fact that it was in Mandarin and its stars were largely unknown outside of Asia. The Passion of the Christ was huge, and that was in Aramaic! People will accept subtitles and unknowns if the film's quality is there--no need to dumb it down.

I've read the book, and the story made me think it would have made a nice Disney animated film. (Well, except for the stuff about auctioning off a character's virginity....) I have seen the trailer, and at least the cinematography looks good.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Found in Translation

I have been thinking about translations a lot recently--in part because of the Analects, and in part because of the VCDs from Taiwan of questionable legality I have been watching.

The interesting thing about translation is, the translator must make choices about which possible meaning he or she is going to go with. The translations of the Analects by Slingerland, Waley, Lau, etc., are instructive even to competent readers of Chinese because you can see the interpretation built in to the English.

In the VCDs, it is obvious that the translation process was careless. Much of the translation is based on mishearings of the English ("shark" for "shock," "make a bet" for "vampyre bat," etc.), and that obviously renders a good portion of the dialogue nearly nonsensical.

In the comments to Language Hat's very kind post about my blog, someone mentioned that making a translation true to the original is often a thankless task. Indeed, the best a translator can do is stay invisible and let his choices become a seemless part of the work. The translator of the VCD slipped up and showed himself.

It seems that translators get more grief than they do kudos. Some reviews of Philip Gabriel's translation Murakami Haruki's Kafka on the Shore complained of "jive" like "Jeez Louise" being used. I thought it was great--don't you think there's such a thing as Japanese jive, Janet Maslin of the NY Times?!

In an email exchange with fellow translator Jay Rubin, Gabriel also talks about Murakami's own decision for the Japanese chain restaurant Royal Host to be changed to Denny's in the English translation. This, on the other hand, I think is unfortunate. When I read something, especially in translation, I like to know that somewhere, on another continent, people are eating in a restaurant called "Royal Host." Readers should be allowed to find these things.

It's a fine line, and perhaps it is a thankless task to find it.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Another Confucian Headscratcher: Which Comes First?

First, Waley's translation of Analect 3:8:

Tzu-hsia asked, saying, What is the meaning of
Oh the sweet smile dimpling,
The lovely eyes so black and white!
Plain silk that you would take for coloured stuff.

The Master said, The painting comes after the plain groundwork. Tzu-hsia said, Then ritual comes afterwards? The Master said, Shang [Tzu-hsia's familiar name] it is who bears me up. At last I have someone with whom I can discuss the Songs!
The tricky line here is Confucius' comment "The painting comes after the plain groundwork." In Chinese that's 子曰繪事後素. Waley reads 後 as a verb, "to come after" but this could be (and has been) read as a preposition, giving us "After painting, the plain groundwork [white]." That would leave Tzu-hsia's last question as being something like "And after ritual?"

The question of whether ritual is part of the natural order of things or part of culture is again played out here in grammatical interpretation. Too bad the Chinese didn't develop a grammar for their own language--the commentaries rather re-phrase the sentences so it is clear which interpretation they use. (They never say explicitly "That's a verb here, not an preposition" or anything like that.)

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lost in Translation in Translation

The Analects of Confucius Book 3 number 5:

D.C. Lau's translation:
"The Master said, 'Barbarian tribes with their rulers are inferior to Chinese states without them.'"

Arthur Waley's translation of the same passage:
"The Master said, 'The barbarians of the East and North have retained their princes. They are not in such a state of decay as we in China.'"

So which is it--is China better or are the barbarians? We don't need to feel bad. Looking at commentaries from the Han Dynasty onward, we can see Chinese people of different eras were just as lost as we are, and also needed a "translation." They had to explain the text in more understandable language.

Many commentators read 亡 (Waley's "decay") as being 無 (Lau's "without"), and then there's the matter of what you want to do with the 不如, "not like." Both Lau- and Waley-style interpretations can be found.

Many commentators also read the Analects not as isolated fragments of conversations, but almost as if there were a narrative running through each book. Book 3 is about sumptuary laws and conducting appropriate rituals (Confucius keeps harping about upper-class people putting on airs and doing stuff only the Emperor should be allowed to do), so people have raised the question why there'd be an empty potshot at the barbarians in the middle of all that. The context, they say, points to China's decline after all. Others say it means even if ritual was being misused, China was still the land of ritual and therefore still superior despite its lack of rulers.

I never realized the ways the Analects could be read (or, indeed, was read over history), and as a consequence I thought it was a pretty dull text. It's not--it's fascinating. It is too bad that the English translations leave out the good stuff that has arisen around the text over the years. It's clear the translators used it. What does the "original" text mean? Nobody's known that since Confucius' time, and it's a good thing, too. The openness of the text has created space for all sorts of readings.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ian Buruma on Japanese Nationalism

I attended a lecture by writer/journalist Ian Buruma last week but haven't had time to write about it until now. His talk was ostensibly on nationalism in Asia, but the focus was really on Japan. There was a little bit about China, and a brief mention or two of Korea.

Buruma reiterated what is pretty much the standard story about Japan--Japanese identity was lost after World War II and during the American occupation. The Japanese left supported the pacifist constitution, he said, because they believed Japan was like an alcoholic who had to swear off drinking forever. The right, on the other hand, argued that Japan had done nothing to be ashamed of, and those who said otherwise were victims of occupation propaganda. History, the right said, was being (re-)written by the victors.

Buruma says that there's been a recent upswing of nationalism in Japan, which he evidences by Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Jinja, textbook reforms, and that other usual suspect, right-wing manga artist Kobayashi Yoshinori.

Like I said, pretty standard stuff so far, but what I thought was interesting was that he claimed nationalism has become mainstream due to a collapse of the left, which up until the 1980s kept the far right in check.

The part of the talk concerning China was mainly about the recent anti-Japan demonstrations there. While he admitted that the Chinese do have a legitimate grievance and the Japanese have not fully faced up to their actions during the war, neither is in the extreme the other makes it out to be. The Chinese know little about the various Japanese apologies for wartime conduct, and that the textbooks and the shrine visits are separate issues not worth the protests. The protests, he said, were "instrumentalized" by the government to deflect attention from homegrown problems.

I didn't have time to stick around and ask questions (hinshi bunkai awaited), but what I wanted to ask was, Why is it that both the Japanese left and the Japanese right agree that the soul of Japan is defined by its behavior during WWII? Important? Yes. 100%? No. Even if we take the war as the end of a process which began with the Meiji Restoration, isn't that still but a drop in the historical bucket? I know Japanese nationalists have created some kind of revisionist "Yamato spirit" and bushi propaganda during the war--hasn't anyone on the left or otherwise tried to rehabilitate those cultural images?

The other problem I had (have) is this view of China. It may be accurate to some extent, but I think it is perfectly plausible that a great number of Chinese like their system the way it is and like to see "troublemakers" (dissidents) get into trouble, etc. I mean, look at neocons in the States who would tell you anyone who criticizes the war or the president is unpatriotic. People like that would also certainly have strong anti-Japanese feelings but I wouldn't say they are only due to the fact that they've been manipulated. We can't assume that deep inside all Chinese wish they lived in the USA or the UK and would cherish "freedom" and "democracy." I don't think it's ncessarily the case that they were all stirred up to begin with and were "venting" by demonstrating against Japan.

As I have said, I am more of a Sinologist than Japanophile. I would like to hear opinions about the limited scope of Japanese debate on its own identity from people more informed than myself.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Japanese Listening Comprehension Practice

I just found out recently that Yomiuri Shimbun has a podcast. I have been listening to it to work on my listening comprehension for Japanese.

You can find the podcast on iTunes--just search for Yomiuri.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Shi shi shi shi-- Chinese Characters and Tones

This Thanksgiving, be thankful for tones and Chinese characters, because they make stuff like this cool poem possible:
石室詩士施氏, 嗜獅, 誓食十獅。
十時, 適十獅適市。
是時, 適施氏適市。
氏視是十獅, 恃矢勢, 使是十獅逝世。
氏拾是十獅屍, 適石室。
石室濕, 氏使侍拭石室。
石室拭, 氏始試食是十獅。
食時, 始識是十獅, 實十石獅屍。

Meaning in English:

In a stone den was a poet Shi Shi, who loved to eat lions, and decided to eat ten.
He often went to the market to look for lions.
One day at ten o'clock, ten lions just arrived at the market.
At that time, Shi Shi just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those ten lions, he killed them with arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp. He asked his servants to wipe it.
After the stone den was wiped, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized that those ten lions were in fact ten stone lion corpses.
Try to explain this.
What's so cool about that? Check out the Pinyin for the pronunciation:
« Shī Shì shí shī shǐ »
Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.
Of course I had heard the famous "44 Stone Lions" (or "dead lions" or whatever) tongue twister, but never this clever little poem until I chanced across it in Wikipedia here.

Another fun sentence you may know is this Chinese palindrome:
"The tap water in Shanghai comes from the ocean."

I guess this Japanese one is very famous, but it's new to me:

It looks like fudging the tenten is allowed, or at least in classical Japanese (where they wouldn't have been written anyway, I believe).

I also like this one:
なつまでまつな "Don't wait until summer."

Friday, November 18, 2005


According to online gossip rag Popbitch, a new version of Journey to the West (Saiyuuki, or Xiyou Ji) is being filmed in Australia starring SMAP member Katori Shingo as the Monkey King. It will supposedly air on Fuji TV in Japan starting in February.

I've never actually seen the version that's best known (to gaijin, at least)--Monkey Magic, though I have seen the low-rent Chinese version that is apparently played a lot in China during holidays, as well as a few cartoon versions. There's also a Hong Kong film starring Stephen Chow of Kung Fu Hustle fame, in which Monkey falls in love.

The latest cinematic version of the story to come out of the Chinese-speaking world is the Taiwanese animated film Fire Ball. It's the story of Monkey fighting Red Boy (translated as "Fire Ball" in promo materials for the film). Sinorama, the Taiwanese magazine I do some work for, has a story on the film here.

As a music fan I can hardly stomach SMAP, but I am looking forward to seeing the new Japanese version.

Thursday, November 17, 2005


While I'm complaining about the typical wire-story reporting on China and Taiwan, let me mention one more thing. There's often a tag line that says something like "Taiwan separated from the mainland amidst civil war in 1949." First, Taiwan is an island, and civil war doesn't affect tectonics! They mean, of course, that the governments separated--but that leaves out the fact that Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945. So it was a separation after domestic bliss of... four years?

When they say "mainland," they mean the People's Republic of China, which was founded in 1949. Taiwan's government is the Republic of China, which was founded in 1912. Now tell me again, who broke away from whom?

(By the way, another reason I love Taiwan is it's the only place I know that celebrates a National Day commemorating a revolution that happened in another country. In 1912, Taiwan was part of Japan.)

"Renegade Province?"

The media have been reporting that Bush mentioned Taiwan as a model of democracy for China to follow, and in just about every story there is something like "China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province."

Doesn't it beg the question, what does Taiwan consider itself to be? It is home to 28 milion people or so--how about some balanced reporting? Lazy journalism.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Arachnoid Revelers

A while back I mentioned Scooter Libby's novel. Libby is one of a number of political figures harboring literary pretentions--Newt Gingrich wrote a novel, as did G. Gordon Liddy, Barbara Boxer, Bill O'Reilly, and even Saddam Hussein. Libby actually got some good reviews, but the typical politician/pundit novel just ends up as something for people of the opposite political persuasion to chuckle over. I heard counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke on NPR the other day saying at least he got some good advice--don't include a sex scene.

Not to be outdone, Stephen Colbert has written Alpha Squad Seven: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure! A sneak peek is here.

People like Colbert make me wish I had a TV.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Semi-tactful Google

I noticed that Google is getting pretty good at zeroing in on me with its targeted Gmail ads. As someone who always got a cheap laugh from creating Yahoo news alerts for "hell freezes over" and stuff like that (I loved when eBay had one of their "Low-priced ___, great selection!" ads on a page about... igloos), I started to wonder if any message at all would get an ad. I wrote myself an email with the subject "condolences" and a body "I am sorry to hear that your beloved cat miffy died." No ad--good job, Google! But then I thought maybe it was just too short for Google to get any analysis in, so I went back and forth with replies about losing a loved one, etc.--still no ads at all. Then I pasted in some text about Sony's audio CD malware, and poof! ads for blank CD-ROMs! Then I switched back to some "sympathy" type language, and then ads were for... blank CD-ROMs and websites with collections of sympathy poems.

It's good to know the bots have a little tact!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

New Japanese Word

On the HONYAKU mailing list for J-E translators, someone recently asked why the Japanese island 硫黄島 is written "Iwojima" in English. I bet some of you can guess the reason why (I am looking at you, Matt and Azuma), and that wasn't what caught my interest. The conversation went on to if Japanese ever called Mount Fuji "Fujiyama," as misguided gaijin sometimes do. That in turn led to the Wikipedia page for Mt. Fuji, and that's where I learned a great new Japanese phrase: "Fujiyama geisha," the Japan that is misunderstood by the West. I never heard it used in Japan, though there were many instances where it could have been:

"Kill Bill? That movie was so full of Fujiyama geisha nonsense!"

And whaddayaknow, there are restaurants called "Fujiyama" and "Geisha" in New York City. There is even one called "Geisha House" in LA--Ashton Kutcher is an investor.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A Story from 宇治拾遺物語 (Part 2)

此児、「定めて驚かさんずらん」と待ちゐたるに、僧の、「物申しさぶらはむ。驚かせ給へ」といふを、うれしとは思へ ども、「ただ一度にいらへんも、待ちけるかともぞ思ふ」とて、「今一声呼ばれていらん」と念じて寝たるたり程に、「や、な起し奉りそ。幼き人は寝入り給ひ にけり」といふ声のしければ、あなわびしと思ひて、「今一度起せかし」と思ひ寝に聞けば、ひしひしとただ食ひに食ふ音のしければ、ずちなくて、無期の後 に、「えい」といらへたりければ、僧たち笑ふ事限りなし。

This acolyte waited, thinking that certainly they'd rouse him, when he heard a monk say "Let's call 'hello' to him to wake him up." He was happy, but, thinking to himself "If I answer after just one call, they'll think I was waiting. I'll answer after they call again," he just stuck it out and continued to pretend to sleep. Then, when he heard a voice say, "Don't wake him up. The kid fell asleep on us," he thought he was in a bad spot. "Wake me up again," he was thinking as he continued to sleep and listen hopefully. Then there was a "chomp chomp" sound. With no choice left and having waited so long, he answered, "Yes?" The monks all laughed without stopping.
I broke down and found a modern Japanese translation of this to sankou suru. This part has some real marathon sentences as well which I just had to chop up to get semi-readable English. Can anyone tell me how this しければ works?

Friday, November 11, 2005

A Story from 宇治拾遺物語 (Part 1)

是も今は昔、比叡の山に児ありけり。僧たち、宵のつれづれに、 「いざ、かいもちひせん。」と言ひけるを、この児、心寄せに聞き けり。さりとて、しいださんを待ちて寝ざらんも、わろかりなんと思ひて、片方に寄りて、寝たるよしにて、いで来るを待ちけるに、すでにしいだしたるさまに て、ひしめき合ひたり。

This one happened long ago too. There was a boy acolyte on Mount Hiei. In the dullness of the evening, this acolyte would hear with pleasure the monks' saying "Hey, let's make some red-bean rice cakes!" So, thinking it would be bad to wait for them to be ready without going to sleep, he went off to a corner to pretend like he was asleep as he waited. Soon it seemed that the cakes were done, and there was a ruckus.
I know there are some problems in this translation. I am not sure what なん is doing in わろかりなんと思ひて, for example--is it a rentaikei of ぬ followed by an abbreviated む? And what should I do with 心寄せに? And the last sentence is so long I think it has to be broken up in the English, especially since it has しいださん, いで来る, and しいだしたる. That gets really monotonous in English. You can either write "finished" three times or indulge in some egegious use of elegant variation.

I will put the rest of this up when I, um, figure it out. (That's the passage that inspired my dream.) In the meantime, feedback would be appreciated.

Jewel in the Lotus janakute Buddha's Head

Wired reports on CAT scans of some Korean Buddhist statues that show they contain jewels and other hidden stuff.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Last night, after doing about 4 hours of hinshi bunkai, I fell asleep and dreamed that I was in an amusement park themed on classical Japanese language. To get around the park, you had to travel on subway trains through sentences. You started at the end of the sentence, and to navigate through you had to know, say, whether the adverb you were currently in should be preceded by a mizenkei or a renyoukei, and if you were right the train would move accordingly.

I never made it up off the trains to check out the park.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Lazy Man's Guide to Classic Asian Literature

A rural inn somewhere in Japan, in the dead of winter, long ago--it's the setting for a novel that recently flew up the charts at Amazon. Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country, you're thinking? No, no, no--it's The Apprentice by indicted White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby. After reading about it on No-sword, I just had to check it out for myself on Amazon. It was ranked in the 300s at the time, though it is back at 11,106 as I write. I was surprised to see it apparently got good reviews, too.

Anyway, even better than the ranking and the reviews is Amazon's Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs). I don't know how those are determined, but I am going to go out on a limb and venture that a book's individual text is measured against a massive corpus using some sort of Markov chain. (If you know what I am talking about, please clue me in because I don't.) Libby's novel's SIPs are:

assistant headman, tiny dancer, man with the pole, mountain trousers, old samurai, lacquer workers, liquid woman, dead hunter, youth hesitated, charcoal maker, youth glanced, yellow fur, man with the club, youth nodded, youth stared, moment the youth, snow wall, young samurai

I think I pretty much get the picture from that.

Then I got to thinking, if I can get a taste of that novel from the SIPs, maybe I should compare it to Kawabata's. Unfortunately, SIPs weren't available for Snow Country as that novel does not have Amazon's Search Inside feature. They were available for Kawabata's Thousand Cranes, however:

tea cottage, tea utensils, tea bowl

Wow, minimalist, traditionalist, Japanese. I think this method is on to something. Let's check them against some Murakami Haruki just to test it out. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's SIPs:

man with the guitar case, vinyl hat, rice pudding mix, macaroni gratin, ward pool, wig company, duck people, shoe cabinet, wig factory, hanging house, bird sculpture, telephone woman, cooking spaghetti, vacant house

Mundane food items? Check. Surrealism? Check. ("Duck people"?) Perfect. I don't remember if there really were duck people in the novel, but this list smells like Murakami to me.

But let's use this to save some time and read some massive works in, say, 10 seconds or so. I love this one: The Tale of Genji's SIPs: saffron flower. Yep, that's it. "Evocative," no?

How about those massive Chinese novels? Journey to the West (vol. 2-- 1 was unavailable): hooped rod, two little fiends, auspicious luminosity, poled the luggage, travel rescript certified, vast magic powers, his muckrake, brazen ape, white jade steps, cloudy luminosity, subdue the fiend, his iron rod, great snow fall, ginseng fruits, bronze mallet, various fiends, iguana dragon, preparatory mass, steel crop, immaculate vase, our rescript, treasure staff, gloomy complexion, testimonial poem, reverted cinnabar. Could you give a better summary in 4 lines or so?

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: bade the lictors, whirling his sword, bade the executioners, score bouts, assembled his officers, van leader, wooden oxen, own ravine, hundred bouts, forty legions, twenty legions, ten legions, five legions, thirty legions, small chariot, half legion, great shouting, golden axes, double marches, his steed, few bouts, silken bag, third bout, few horsemen, late ruler "Bade the lictors?" I think this one is telling us more about the translator than the work itself, but all those legions and chariots give us an idea.

The last volume of Dream of the Red Mansions: junior maids, outer study, provincial posting, thousand taels, hundred taels, other maids, inner apartments. Lots of people, lots of money, big place. But here, we get a better picture from CAPs, Capitalized Phrases: Lady Xing, Old Ladyship, Rong-guo House, Cousin Zhen, Sir Zheng, Bao Yong, Jia Rong, Their Ladyships, Grannie Liu, Jia Yu-cun, Zhen Bao-yu, Steward Lin, Aunt Zhao, Miss Lin, Sister Adamantina, Prospect Garden, Green Bower Hermitage, Board of Punishments, Grain Intendant, Miss Xi-chun, Prince of Bei-jing, Master Bao, Jia Bao-yu, Board of Works, Commissioner Zhao. A bunch of names, family members, a touch of religion, and punishment. That's the Dream of Red Mansions for you.

Sum up Confucian thought as portrayed in the Analects in 10 words: accordance with the rites, ceremonial cap, benevolent man, loving learning. Thanks, Amazon!

There's an old Woody Allen joke... "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in an hour. It was about some Russians."

Friday, November 04, 2005

The (Very) Long Tail

It's a milestone: I am listed seventh on Google searching for "classical Japanese raru." I guess I am officially part of the very, very long tail. Well, even A-list blogger Joi Ito is slipping. Momus, who isn't a bad writer when he's not writing about Japan on other people's blogs, said "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people." Maybe there are 15 people who are interested in raru, etc.?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Reading Between the Lines

These days when I am not trying to get my taris straight from my naris and keris, I am usually reading commentaries to Chinese texts. There has always been a lot of writing about writing, and even writing about writing about writing, in China. Even today, when you buy a copy of a Chinese classic--say, the Analects of Confucius--it is typically accompanied by some notes either in the margins or actually written in the body of the text in a smaller font or something. Some of these commentaries have become canonized right along with the texts they accompany. The thing that makes them interesting, though, is not the light they shed on the original text, but the way they capture an understanding of that text at a point in time. You can go through layers of commentaries and see how the understanding of a text has shifted through time.

Some texts, and some certain passages of texts, seem to attract more commentaries than others. Perhaps we can say those texts are more "open": with archaic language or obtuse subject matter, they lend themselves to interpretation.

What do the comments say? I have been trying to think of rough categories for them. Individual comments seem to have one or more of the following functions:
1. Textual/editorial: Stuff like "Character X should really be character Y."
2. Phonetic glosses: Notes on how to pronounce a character, usually via the fanqie 反切 ("reverse cut") system in which two characters are supplied, one with the same initial as the character in question and one with the same final. (ping+fang=pang, etc.)
3. Backgrounding: Notes providing historical or other allegedly factual information to flesh out the text.
4. Rephrasings: Using clearer wording for difficult passages.
5. Intertextual references: Using another text to explicate the one at hand.
6. Systematizing and generalizing: Drawing general moral or philosophical principles from the text.

As the written language was largely unstandardized for most of its history, #1 shouldn't surprise us much. I was a bit surprised by the frequency of #2, though. Perhaps they are similar to #1, in that once you could pronounce it you'd have a better guess at what the character was supposed to mean. But for that to work, you'd have to be using the same dialect as the commentator. Maybe there was some ancient form of what in China they now call putonghua 普通話, "common speech." (Confucius is said to speak his own dialect as well as yayan 雅言 "elegant speech" for more formal occasions, such as reciting the Odes.) Maybe these commentaries served as some kind of crib sheet for people who had to recite these texts in the common speech rather than their dialect. Numbers 3 and 4 are fairly obvious. Number 5 is interesting, though, because it assumes the texts are consistent with one another due to their canonical status--they're usually explaining, say, the Odes in terms of the Analects or something like that. Sometimes they explain parts of a text with other parts from the same one. Zhu Xi explained Confucian analects with other ones, assuming a consistent message and use of terminology. That brings us to #6. People like Zhu Xi extrapolated from the various canonical works things like, say, the meaning of humaneness 仁, whether that was an internal or external quality, and how to go about cultivating it.

I am betting that the later the commentary, the higher the number of fives and sixes in there. The texts had found more or less stable forms and needed less "editing," and standard commentaries made the meanings more or less understood even if the backgrounds could be argued over (people might disagree over references, etc.--one says the "prince" of a poem refers to King Wen and another says no, it's [somebody else]). Later, by the Song Dynasty, people like Zhu Xi were taking these texts and remixing and sampling them into their own works.

What did they get from doing that? Why slice'n'dice the canon to prove your point? Perhaps the use of canonical texts lent authority to their own ideas. Perhaps, and to me more likely, classical education provided a set of semantic building blocks any literate person would be familiar with, making its use natural. Whatever the reason, it is remarkable how the Confucian canon retained such a prominent place in the Chinese intellectual realm for so long.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Red Dust

Last week I attended a talk given by the Chinese "writer in exile" Ma Jian 馬建. His most famous book is his record of his travels around China during the mid-1980s, Red Dust. I haven't read the whole thing, but I got through about half of it before the talk. I read a review of it when it first came out and always meant to pick it up but never got around to it until I heard he was coming. The novel (autobiography?) is perverse, funny, and compassionate--a nice break from the typical "scar literature" 傷痕文學 that often finds popularity outside of China.

In it, he is living in Beijing, living what I found to be a surprisingly bohemian lifestyle--hanging out with artist and writer friends drinking late into the night, talking about esoteric literature, hiring a nude model to paint, listening to banned Teresa Teng tapes. (Hey, she may have been the Chinese version of the Carpenters but at that time getting caught with her music would get you five years in jail. Not to mention, when you juxtapose her slow, sappy love ballads against the state-mandated "glory to the working man" stuff, you can almost see what the CCP was afraid of.) He does decent work at his job as a photographer for a propaganda publisher, and the bosses try to cut him some slack for his scruffy appearance and loose hygene routines, he's an artist after all, but he's messed up a few times. His photo of workers on a bridge construction project showed the bridge's chipped paint. He used yellow for the title of a publication--"yellow book" means "pornography" in Chinese.

Deputy Chen slaps his hands on the table. "Such a large patch of yellow! You are trying to suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions!"
The conference room falls quiet. The Table in front of me looks very heavy. "What is a pornographic trade union?" I ask quietly.
"It's bourgeois, young Comrade Ma. You have committed a fundamental error, fundamental!"

He is asked to give a self-criticism, but instead prepares a statement about how he does the work of four or five people and puts himself at the top of the list for "Beijing's Number-One Model Worker." His bosses are furious, his love life is already in a mess, so he goes wandering toward the West. He has taken lay Buddhist vows, so he heads toward Tibet. The book is about his adventures "On the Road."

Ma's talk was entitled "Literature and Politics in Contemporary China." He talked about writers of sensationalistic, apolitical literature like Mian Mian and Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby) who have been causing a storm in China. (Last time I was in China, a couple years ago, it seemed like there was a copycat "____ Baby" book for every major city.) A genre of novels about fighting corruption has also become very popular recently, he said. (I think the term he used was 反腐小說.)

But in his view, Chinese writers like himself who live outside of China have an obligation to rebel against the restrictions of Chinese society. He said something similar in an article in the Guardian: "China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it." That's why he called his last novel The Noodle Maker: Chinese people, he said, are like the dough being stretched and pulled into noodles by the hands of the noodle maker.

I admire him for his writing and his stance, but at the same time, I thought there was something a little sad about this. If a Chinese artist only gains awareness after leaving China, but is then obligated to write about that society, then that artist will never be truly free to word as he or she wishes. Would China ever be able to produce a writer with the wild imagination of a Murakami Haruki? For that matter, is Japanese society any more aware than Chinese society? If rebellion against the communist state mandated social realism, that would be a bit ironic.

I know very little about modern Chinese lit-- eighteenth century is the new stuff as far as I am concerned. But someone in the talk said all the best writers and poets in China since ancient times were dissidents of some sort who ended up exiled or executed. Did the oppressive society spawn their genius or crush it?

Kerr in Japan Times

Speaking of Alex Kerr, interview here.
(And why does my browser always think that the Japan Times is in Big5 Chinese encoding?)

Omit Needless Words

You've used the reference book, now see the opera: MSNBC reports that a musical work based on Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" has premiered at the New York Public Library. See the article here.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Ru, Raru, Su, Sasu, Shimu, Zu....

For the last couple weeks, I have been trying to get a handle on around thirty archaic Japanese adverbs. Many of them have several meanings, and some of them even have two diametrically opposed meanings. "Tari," for example, can denote a completed action or a continuing action. Of course, that "tari" is not to be confused with the assertive "tari." How do you tell them apart? Simple--look at the word it is connected to. If it's a verb in the renyoukei form, it's the former (in one sense or another). If it's a noun or the rentaikei form of a verb, it's the latter. Just check the chart of thirty adverbs (each itself available in six or so conjugations, which are needed depending on how the adverb itself functions in the sentence). But how do I figure out what sort of verb form it is? Well, depending on which one of the six verb types it is, it will be conjugated differently. (I love that "keru," "to kick," gets a class of its own even though it is indistinguishable to me from kamiichidan verbs.) Don't worry, you get a chart for those too. Oh, and a chart for adjectives. Yes, of course you have to conjugate adjectives, too! What if I can't even figure out if it's a verb or a noun because it's such archaic language? Break out the kogo dictionary, my friend.
How did I get myself into this? Aren't I a sinologist?
Something about it all is perversely appealing to me, I suppose. Like the language, like the country, Japan always seems to make too much sense to my sinified mind. "If you just master this chart and that set of things and memorize this list, it'll all fall into place," it seems to taunt. The Japanese aesthetic may get stereotyped as minimalistic, but this grammar is positively baroque. The amazing thing is, though, it's all there for you. Grammar imparts meaning. I can imagine looking at a classical Japanese text and saying "No, of course the one doing the action is Genji because the verb is in the rentaikei!"
Contrast that with an (admittedly, rather extreme) example from Classical Chinese. In the Lao Tzu text, there's a line that reads:
無名天地之始 (nothing name heaven earth possessive-particle beginning)
We could take the "name" as a verb and read that as "'Nothing' names the beginning of the world." We could also read "nothing" and "name" as being a noun phrase, giving us "Nameless is the beginning of the world." There's no way to tell, and commentators argued about stuff like this in the margins of texts for centuries. For that matter, they still are.
That's why I am (masochistically) enjoyng Classical Japanese so much, why it seems so novel to me. There's clarity, but you're going to need some maps and charts to get to it.

UPDATE: Matt over at No-Sword has answered the riddle of the single shimoichidan verb "keru-- to kick" in an enlightening post here.

Students of Chinese, Students of Japanese

In his wistful book on his adopted home country (or perhaps I should say "first adopted home country," as I believe he spends most of his time in Thailand now), Lost Japan, Alex Kerr talks about his days doing Asian Studies at Yale. A professor of Chinese would give a grandiose lecture on the first day, saying, "Should I start with the efflourescence of the High Tang? Or one millenium earlier with the unification of China under Qin Shihuang and the construction of the Great Wall? No-- [pregnant pause]-- I will begin with the rise of the Himalayas!" A professor of Japanese would invite the students over to his house for a night of sushi and Japanese dancing. Kerr says he asked people who'd spent time in Japan the best moment of their lives, and they'd say "I was meditating in a monastery, and when the abbot walked by I heard his robes swishing in the breeze." While the people attracted to Chinese studies were restless and analytical, those attracted to Japanese were subdued and sensual.
When I read that, I knew I had made the right choice. Chinese all the way.
Chinese always came easy to me. Sure, it is tonal, but once you get past that, the pronunciation is quite simple and the Pinyin system is very straightforward. And the characters-- sure, you need to know thousands to "read a newspaper" as they say (of all the things you could read in Chinese, why would you want to read the newspaper? Why is that the benchmark?), the characters break down into a fairly manageable system of bits and pieces which combine in sensible ways. And the grammar-- no tenses, no articles, no conjugation-- just stick the words in the right order and you're just about there. After studying for a couple years, I headed off to Taiwan. Then after a couple years there, I considered myself fairly fluent.
Later, I had the opportunity to move to Japan, so I took it up, thinking I could absorb Japanese like I did Chinese.
I was in Japan for a couple years, but never got to the point with Japanese that I did with Chinese. Maybe it was because I was older, maybe I was just less motivated, I don't know, but Japanese just didn't click for me. Kaku changes to kaita-- where'd the second "k" go? How can I recognize these words when they keep changing? How can I remember them when they are so long? It took me a couple weeks to remember the thing I sat in in my house was a "hori-kotatsu." People at 7-11 seemed to be still rattling off their thank-you-come-agains even as I was out the door. And reading that one little character for "east" as "higashi"? Three syllables-- you must be joking!
Well, it started to click a little bit, though for months I had to hum "u tsu ru tta nu mu bu nda..." to the tune of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" every time I had to conjugate a verb. Maybe it started to click because I began to appreciate Japan more. I think I resented Japan a bit at first. So many of these people fawning over Japan as they meditate in the temples and hear the abbot walk by, I thought, look down their noses at China even though so much of what they love about Japan originated in China. Japan was just too perfect, and everything made too much sense. Then I started learning that Japan wasn't so perfect, and under the surface all sorts of contradictions and tensions raged. In my eyes, Japan became a frustrating, maddening place.
That is, I came to like it. It may have been in the way of a student of Chinese, but I came to like it very much.